After the fall of the goddess of justice, temple assassin Aral Kingslayer lost his purpose in life and turned to the bottle. That might have been the end of him if luck hadn’t given him a few people to help him get back on his feet—notably the irresistible Baroness Maylien Dan Marchon, who once sought his aid in claiming the throne that’s rightfully hers. Reluctant to resume the role of an assassin, he turned her down.
But now Aral has learned that one of the few people willing to help him in his darkest days has been imprisoned by Maylien’s uncle, King Thauvik. Aral knows he can’t let an old friend die, but the alternative is to return to the life he left years ago. It was the death of Thauvik’s half brother that earned Aral the name Kingslayer, and now he is thrust into a war that will see no end until he lives up to his name…
Blade Reforged (Available June 25th 2013): Book #4 of the Fallen Blade, an Excerpt:
The present is the past. Every today is built atop the mounded corpses of a thousand yesterdays. Mine was no exception. Broken furniture and filth surrounded me in what had once been the tavern known as the Gryphon’s Head. A place that had once been my home was now a shattered ruin, empty save for myself, my partner, and trouble. The past calling the present to account, as it always does.
Trouble wears a thousand faces and comes in a million shapes. In my case, trouble had herself a new dress. It looked damn good on her too, and no surprise there. My trouble had a name; The Baroness Maylien Dan Marchon Tal Pridu, and she always looked good. Tall and lithe with long brown hair and a lovely set of curves that she’d sheathed in green velvet. My sometime lover, sometime client and the unacknowledged heir to the throne of Zhan was a beautiful woman…and trouble. Lots and lots of trouble.
“Have a seat.” I gestured to the open chair across from me with the half empty bottle I’d found in the wreckage, and whiskey slopped out over the cracked lip. “Let me pour you a drink.”
“I don’t think either of those would be such a good idea, Aral,” said Maylien. “In fact, I was rather hoping I could convince you to leave with me so we could have this conversation someplace else. Someplace safe.”
“But I like it here,” I swung the bottle around to take in the whole of the dark and empty bar, with its boarded-up windows, tumbled and broken furniture, and thick layers of dust over everything. “It’s one of the few places I’ve ever felt at home.” I was slurring my words. Not a good sign, but I didn’t care. “Or at least, I used to, before whatever the hell happened here happened. Speaking of which, I’m guessing you showing up here right now, means you know something about that.”
Maylien sighed and directed her attention to the dim shadow I cast across the table in front of me. “Triss, is there any chance of you talking some sense into Aral? Or do I need to play this out here?”
The shadow shifted, transforming itself from a darkened mirror of my own form into the silhouette of a small winged dragon.
It, or rather, he, flicked his wings angrily. “If I could talk sense into Aral, would he be sitting here drinking and waiting for the fucking Elite to show up and nail his hide to the wall and mine with it? No, of course not. But why would he listen to me? I’m just his familiar. It’s not like I’m right nine times out of every ten that we disagree. Or, wait…no, it’s exactly like that.” Triss shook his head. “He’s hopeless.”
“There you may have a point.” Maylien pushed her dueling blade to one side and sat down on the dusty chair across from me, doing untold damage to that fancy dress. “What do you want, Aral?”
That was a good question. What did I want? Once upon a time, I could have answered that question with ease, I wanted to be the instrument of Justice. That was back in the old days, when they had called me Aral Kingslayer and I was among the most feared assassins in the world, one of the fabled Blades of Namara the goddess of justice. But that was before the other gods murdered her and ordered her followers put to the sword.
For a long time after that, what I most wanted was to turn back time to the days when Namara yet lived, to restore the temple, and to return my friends and fellows to life. To undestroy my world. Some days I still wanted that more than anything. But life wasn’t as simple as I’d once thought it was. Or, maybe, I wasn’t as simple. These days I couldn’t even mourn the me I’d once been without second guessing everything.
Fuck it. I took another drink, careful to avoid the jagged edge. The whiskey tasted of smoke and honey as it burned its way down my throat. Damn but it was good. Even so, I sighed and set the bottle down, because I didn’t really want to drink myself unconscious either. Not the way I would have a year or two ago.
I snorted, then looked Maylien square in the eyes. “I honestly have no fucking idea what I want, but why don’t you start by telling me what happened here.”
The Gryphon’s Head was a sleazy tavern in the depths of one of Tien’s worst slums, or it had been anyway. Now it was a boarded-up ruin. For years after the fall of the temple I’d lived in a rented room over the stables. I worked out of the tap-room then, paying my bar bill by playing the shadow jack–a freelancer on the wrong side of the law. But that me, Aral the jack, was gone too. Not as dead as the Kingslayer maybe, but definitely sleeping.
“Well?” I prompted, when Maylien didn’t answer me right away.
“My uncle happened here,” she said finally, her voice bitter.
Maylien’s uncle was Thauvik Tal Pridu, current king of Zhan and successor to the one I’d slain for my goddess all those years ago. Not one of my biggest admirers. Despite shedding no tears over the assassination of his half brother, Thauvik had set the largest price on my head of any of my enemies. He seemed to feel that letting me live after I’d removed his predecessor from the throne might set a bad example. His involvement told me all that I needed to know about the destruction of the Gryphon’s Head.
“What you mean,” I said, “but are entirely too polite to say, is that I happened here. The king would never have even known this place existed if I hadn’t made it my home.”
“My uncle did this, not you–” Maylien began hotly.
But I cut her off, “He did it because of me, because he wanted to punish those who’d once given me shelter, whether they knew who I was or not. ”
She shook her head. “He did it because he’s a monster, Aral. Just like my father and my sister. In case you hadn’t noticed, the poisoned apple doesn’t often fall far from the Pridu family tree.”
The shadow of a dragon suddenly rose up between us, flapping his wings angrily. “How about we actually do something about the problem instead of sitting here and playing guiltier than thou until the king’s men show up to cart us all off to the headsman? I know that’s less dark and brooding and ‘oh the world is an awful place’ than either of you like to do things, but I’ve had about all I can take of that shit for the moment.”
Maylien’s answering grin was pained but genuine. “You sounded just like Heyin there.”
I didn’t smile, but I had to admit that Triss might have a point. Heyin too. The chief of Maylien’s baronial guard and her oldest friend, Heyin didn’t like me much at all. That didn’t make him one bit less wise. Quite the contrary. He disliked me because he felt I made a wholly inappropriate bedmate for his baroness. He was absolutely right. Maylien had more than enough strikes against her in the eyes of her fellow nobles without adding a broken down ex-assassin to the list.
First off, she was a mage, which meant that she had certain advantages that undermined the entire central structure of the Zhani hierarchy–the formal duel of precedence by which anyone of noble blood could challenge any relative for their titles. Secondly, her brand of magery was particularly scandalous. She’d once been a member of the Rovers, a traveling order dedicated to keeping the roads free of brigandage. She’d spent most of her formative years as a homeless wanderer rubbing elbows with the sorts of people most Zhani nobles wouldn’t deign to spit on.
Just then, a harsh squawk sounded from the kitchen–where both Maylien and I had entered. It was followed a moment later by the advent of a miniature gryphon by the name of Bontrang. The little tabby-patterned gryphinx was Maylien’s familiar and he flew straight to his mistress. Landing on the thick pad sewn into the shoulder of her dress, he mrped worriedly in her ear.
She nodded and rose from her seat. “The guard is on its way, Aral. We have to leave. Or, I do, at least. I can’t draw the shadows around me like a cloak the way you can.” She looked pointedly at Triss. “Will you come with me? I can tell you more of what I know about what happened here if you give me the time.”
“Is Jerik dead?” I asked. The owner of the Gryphon’s Head was…well not exactly a friend, but I owed him.
“Not the last I heard.”
“Will you help me find him?”
She nodded. “I know where he’s being held.”
Jerik looked terrible, sallow and pale with loose skin on his cheeks and neck where he’d lost weight, and red blotches all across the old scar tissue where his left eye and much of his scalp had been ripped away by a gryphon. The fact that he was upside down, or rather, that I was and he wasn’t, didn’t help things. No one looks good that way.
There’s just no getting him out of there, I mind spoke to Triss.
Not from here, no. We’ll have to try another route, but why don’t we talk about it later, someplace a bit less hazardous?
I bent double and caught hold of the rope looped around my right ankle, hand over handing my way up the few yards that put me in the shadow of the overhang. I’d set a pair of spikes into the gaps between blocks there. Anyone watching from a distance would have seen little more than the merging of one shadow into another, larger one. That’s if they saw anything at all in the dim light of the waning moon.
The greatest advantage the Blades of Namara possessed was our partnership with the Shades, elemental creatures of darkness bonded both to our souls and our shadows. Semi-corporeal shapechangers, they were capable of expanding into a cloud of darkness to hide their human companions. In a world where spells cast their own light for those with the eyes to see it, a Shade’s penumbra was the closest thing there was to true invisibility. Triss had shifted away from my eyes so that I could see Jerik for myself, but other than that I was entirely contained and concealed within an enveloping cloud of darkness.
Once I had a grip on the line connecting my spikes, I reached down and slipped my ankle free. Then, bracing myself between two of the corbels that supported the overhang, I started working the spikes free. Whether I ended up coming back this way or not, I didn’t want to leave any traces for the guards to find.
Below me the surf snarled and slithered through the miles of jagged coral surrounding the little island where the prison stood. The angry noise more than covered the quiet grating of steel on stone as I pried my anchors loose. The next bit was going to be tricky, so I reached through the link that connected me with Triss and gave him a gentle nudge. In response, he let go of consciousness, sinking down into a sort of dream state as he released control of his physical self to me.
My world expanded to include the darkened cloud around me when I added Triss’s inhuman senses to my own. Light and shadow took on something like taste where they directly impinged on the diffuse blob of shadow that was Triss’s substance. The effect was intense and visceral, with bright spots registering as a spice too hot for the tongue, and the deepest bits of darkness reminding me of the richer notes in a good whiskey. For dealing with greater distances Triss possessed something I thought of as unvision.
His field of view encompassed a complete globe, looking outward in every direction, but it was dimmer than human sight and darker. He had no real ability to distinguish color and only a limited sense of shape. Light intensity and textures dominated. Was something flat and reflective, or nubbly and absorptive? Those were the questions that Triss’s unvision answered best. Once I’d grounded myself firmly in Triss’s alien worldview, I reached out and found the edges of my larger self, pulling inward until what had been a broad, spherical, cloud of shadow contracted to little more than a second skin a few inches thick.
That freed up enough shadow-stuff that I was able to form thin claws on my finger and toe-tips. Drawing nima from the well of my soul, I poured that life energy through the familiar link that bound us, hardening shadow claws into something truly corporeal. Moving quickly, because it was no trivial drain on my soul, I reached out and up, inserting points of congealed darkness into the narrow gap between stones in the overhanging wall. Like some wall-crawling lizard, I made my way past the bulge that underlay the crenellations and up onto the battlements of the prison fortress known as Darkwater Island.
Jerik’s cell stood high in the easternmost corner of the prison, facing the open ocean and continually hammered by wind and wave. A giant magelight topped the tower that rose up from where I slipped onto the wall. It warned ships away from the jagged reef lying inches below the surface for miles in every direction. I paused briefly in the lee of the tower to release Triss again.
He returned to full shroud form, leaving only the thinnest slit for me to see through. While he was doing that, I mapped out my route back to the supply ship that had brought me here. It was docked at a narrow pier extending out from the landward side of the reefs about a half mile from the prison proper. At the head of the pier a small building stood on stone pilings anchored deep in the coral–the same construction used on the prison.
On a calm day, a lucky man might be able to make his heavy-booted way from the base of the prison wall to the pier by walking carefully along ridges in the submerged coral. More likely, he would slip and fall into one of the many deeper channels that ran through the reef. Between the currents, the razor edges of the coral, and the colony of demon’s-head-eels the crown had encouraged to infest the reefs, it wasn’t the best place to go for a swim. The only reliable way to get from the dock to the prison was riding in one of the long narrow baskets that traveled back and forth along an enchanted cable between the two points. Or, in my case, underneath the basket.
I had to avoid several guards walking the rounds as I made my way back to the cable-head, a trivial task given their general lack of interest in their surroundings and my shroud. It was sloppy, but not surprising considering the isolation and reputation of Darkwater Island. No one escaped from the island, and very few were released. Mostly it was a place the Crown sent prisoners to die slowly. And to suffer.
The latter came home rather forcefully when one of the doors that led down from the battlements into the prison depths opened and spat out one of Thauvik’s torturers. Through the narrow gap in my shadow covering I watched him come toward me. The stylized, laughing devil face-paint made him look utterly inhuman, matching appearance to soul by my lights.
The Ashvik whom I had slain had mandated the masklike paint when he first created the royal office of agony. The official reason was to increase the fear the masters of pain instilled in their victims. If it also served the purpose of effectively masking the identity of Ashvik’s pet monsters from those who might be moved to retribution, well that was just fine too.
I hopped up into the darker shadow between two merlons and crouched down as the torturer passed, briefly closing my eyes to avoid reflections. Triss hissed angrily but silently into my mind as he went by, and I found myself in hot agreement with the sentiment. There is never any excuse for torture.
This man might not be one of those who had tortured my fellow Blades after the fall of the temple. That distinction belonged to the office of Heaven’s Hand. But he was of the same monstrous breed as those who served as the disciplinary arm of the Son of Heaven, chief priest of the Eleven Kingdoms and the man I hated more than any other that lived.
The torturer continued another dozen yards past my hiding place and then slipped into the limited shelter offered by a bend in the wall to light a small pipe–most likely some blend of tobacco and opium. He settled into a gap like the one I currently occupied to have his smoke. I might have simply moved on then if he hadn’t rubbed red-stained fingers together and chuckled happily in the manner of a man enjoying a recent memory. It was a small noise, barely audible above the wind, and his makeup hid any smile that might have gone with it. But it was that one step too far.
I crossed the intervening distance without really noticing I was doing it. Before the torturer had time to even register the sudden darkness that had cut him off from the safety of the prison walls, I formed my fingers into a spear and drove the tip deep into his throat. He let out a brief gagging cough as he spat out his pipe, but that was all. It’s hard to scream with a crushed larynx. Harder still when you’re falling a hundred feet onto jagged coral at the same time. One twisting punch in the chest and he was gone.
Fire and sun, Aral! Triss yelped into my mind. What was that?
Justice. I turned and continued toward the cable-head, easily slipping past a guard.
I could feel my familiar’s startlement echoing down the link that connected us. I can’t say that I disagree, but Namara preferred to aim at the masters that held the reins of that sort, the ones the law couldn’t touch.
I’m not Namara.
And if you think the law was ever going to touch one of Thauvik’s personal abominations then you’ve learned nothing of humanity in your years among us. I was absolutely spitting mad, and not entirely sure how I’d gotten there.
Calm down, I didn’t say that. You’re right enough about the chance of any normal sort of justice finding the likes of that one, and I’m not at all sorry to see him die. It’s just that I’m…surprised to see you act on that sort of impulse.
…So am I, actually. It needed to be done, so I did it. Something that had been lying beneath the surface of my thoughts for a couple of months suddenly broke through into the light then. Namara’s gone, Triss. She’s not coming back. I’ve known that for years, but I think I’ve been avoiding thinking about what that meant.
I had been groping toward what it meant to be a Blade without a goddess for more than a year now, ever since Maylien first hired me and forced me to confront what I’d become in the absence of the goddess. I think I finally had a big piece of it.
I can’t just let the world go to hell because I don’t have someone telling me how to fix things, Triss. Kings and generals and high priests didn’t stop going bad when Namara died. They just stopped having to worry about paying for it.
Are you taking this where I think you are?
Maybe. People like that torturer shouldn’t be certain that they can make a life of hurting others without ever having to worry about paying for their crimes.
And you’re going to fix that?
I paused and let another guard go by. At night, or in any environment with heavy shadows, the shroud form of the Shade all but guaranteed his companion Blade would remain unseen. Even in bright light, most people simply ignored the blind spot it created unless it stopped directly between them and something they were looking at.
Master Kaman had told us it was because the human mind wasn’t properly equipped to cope with the magic of elemental shadow, especially expressed in the diffuse-boundaried form of a shroud. I didn’t know if that was what was really going on, or if it was some gift of the goddess that had continued beyond her death, or something else entirely. What I did know was that even with intense training, my own eyes had tended to slip right past shrouded friends without registering them day or night unless I was actively looking for the telltales.
I started moving again, considering Triss’s question as I went. Am I going to fix it? I shrugged. Maybe? Sometimes? When I can? I’m a homeless drunk and I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to see the world in the same black and white way I did when I was a young Blade, but sometimes the right thing to do is pretty clear. Not acting when I know what I should do is a kind of cowardice. I don’t think I can bear to indulge my fears any more. Take the torturer back there. I knew that if I didn’t act to stop him, he was going to finish his pipe and go back downstairs to hurt and kill people. Could I really afford not to act in that circumstance?
While I applaud the sentiment, sent Triss, I do wonder where it’s coming from. Faran was right when she called you sentimental for a Blade and said you didn’t like killing people who weren’t directly in your way. That was only a few months ago. What happened?
When we rescued the lost apprentices at the abbey we killed a couple of hundred of the Son of Heaven’s people. A lot of them weren’t in the way.
It very nearly broke me, but it didn’t quite. I survived and I made the people who put me in a position where I had to kill like that suffer. I spared a moment then to worry about how my apprentice was healing–Faran had been badly injured in the abbey assault–but there was nothing I could do about it but hope the healers could mend what I could not. I feel stronger now than I have in years, Triss–since before the fall of the temple, really. I think all that death was a fire that burned away some of the sentiment. I think it burned away a lot of the old me, actually.
I’m not sure I like the sound of that. Triss’s mindvoice sounded worried.
I’m not sure I like it much either, or whether what’s left of me is going to be someone I can live with, but I don’t see that I have a whole lot of choice in the matter.
I knew that I sounded hard and cold, and to some extent that’s the way I felt. At the same time, I didn’t think I was going to forget the crunch of the torturer’s throat under my fingers or the sight of him falling away to his death anytime soon. That was good. I had just killed a man, and it’s not something I ever wanted to do lightly, no matter how much someone deserved it.
I guess what I’m saying is this, I continued. I’m an assassin. I kill people. It’s what I do, and I’m very, very good at it. Talent, training, calling, they all point in the same direction. The world is an ugly place and it needs people who can do what the goddess made me to do. Her death doesn’t change that. By pretending it did, I’ve been betraying her memory, and, perhaps more importantly, I’ve been betraying what I am.
By then, we’d reached the cable-head and I needed to focus on getting aboard a basket to work our way out of the prison. So, as he so often did, Triss got the last word.
I think that you may have finally found your way back to what you once were. It’s what I’ve wanted for years, and yet, now that it’s come, I’m not sure that I have been wishing the right thing for you.